Humanity, 1910

Virginia Woolf is famously quoted to have said:

“On or about December 1910, human character changed.”

This infamous quote is perhaps one of the best summaries of the modernist period; a period in which nothing was entirely certain, and a period which changed the future of English literature permanently. The catalyst for this cataclysmic change can be considered to be any number of things; from Nietzsche’s revelation that “God is dead”, to the emergence of Darwinism. One of the most important facets of this change however is perhaps the First World War, a topic that I have previously discussed, in relation to Wilfred Owen. The nature of this war was destruction, in return for precious little result; indeed it can be argued that the First World War served as a kind of epilogue to the destruction that was to follow, merely twenty years later. Nevertheless however, the First World War altered our perception of mankind, and of ourselves, permanently.

The aftermath of the war was that society had changed in dynamic due to the horrific death toll; hardly a woman in Europe was left with both husband and son. Men were either too old to have fought, or too young to remember. These children however, began shaping the future of literature in a dynamic way; the canon of war poetry was not shaped by its creators, but it’s critics.

This can be said for all forms of literature, however in this case, it is particularly important, especially when one considers society’s revulsion towards those who had been left behind. Society seemed to abandon the injured, favouring instead to embrace the period of extravagance that followed in the 1920s, before the wrath of the great depression. These factors culminate to a society that was somewhat frivolous towards its criticism of war poetry, especially in England; patriotism was far more popular than the shocking realities that the poems of Sassoon, Owen and their counterparts represented. No nation ever really wants to remember its blackest hour, or relive the memories of it.

However, the idea of the changing human character resonates in one’s ear; that society could change so completely in such a short space of time is shocking. Victorian reserve was abandoned, and staunch Christianity was deeply questioned. Of course, who could possibly blame them for wanting to disband the society that had created the war that killed millions?

However, Woolf explicitly states that this change began to occur before the war began; a mere four years before, but indeed it was before. This early change was perhaps less marked at the time it occurred, and we are all familiar with the power of hindsight in relation to history. Everyone has wondered, “what if I could go back, and tell myself this?”; this is the futile nature of humanity’s retrospect, however.

It is, to my mind at least, completely fascinating that these changes and discoveries across the board colluded to make such a vital, almost fatal, change. The poets, artists, and novelists of the modernist period were unsure how to approach the new attitudes towards society and humanity itself, and this is represented in the deeply experimental nature of their literature, and art. Poetry was no longer of a solid rhyming persuasion; it was chaotic, changing in form, and almost a form of anarchy, reacting to what they saw outside.

Trying to make sense of this anarchy then, was the only way for these poets to progress; they no longer had the certainty that had existed not twenty years before; they no longer had the factual basis that so many great writers before them had, to act as a template. Within this evolving society, they too had to evolve with it; there was no place for the old ways, when they represented so much fear and anxiety. They were forced to push forwards, off the edge of the world, if you like. They had to jump, to find an ocean to which they belonged.

I think it was rather courageous.

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*I was going to find some modernist art, but my image up-loader seems to be affected! I’ll try to edit it tomorrow (:.

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Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part III

So, today I continue my wander through T.S Eliot’s poem, after a short hiatus, and a busy period of reading. Charles Dickens’ Hard Times was simply screaming for my attention. Part III of the poem then, is perhaps the pivotal point; the point at which the meaning within the poem shifts, and begins to take on a more complex one, moving beyond simple descriptions of degradation and corruption, to a kind of death; a death of the spirit. The title itself, “The Fire Sermon”, is inspired by the Buddhist scriptures, something that Eliot himself was very familiar with, because of his excellent understanding of Sanskrit.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium (1)

The beginning of this section very much focuses on sexual degradation, a theme that began to emerge in “A Game of Chess”. There are some hidden references to the lifestyles of “the bright young things”, for example, “the loitering heirs of City directors,”; they lived lives of such huge excess, based around material happiness. This crisis of human nature emerged in the aftermath of the First World War; these young men saw their fathers and brothers die terribly, and in huge numbers, causing a crisis of character, to a certain extent, and therefore their indulgences can be seen as a social reaction in their memory; making up for lost time, even.

The following stanza contains more obvious references to the trenches and battlefields across Europe; an example of this is “White bodies naked on the low damp ground”. Alongside the references to rats, there is a feeling of damp, dank, desperate places. The graveyards of the First World War are somewhere that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. However, juxtaposed against this rather dark image, is the reference to prostitution; this returns the theme of the poem to sexual degradation, positioned against the images of the Great War.

At this point however, a drastic change of pace occurs, because alongside the reference to the secretary (at the time, a secretary was a lower class worker, subservient essentially to all authorities), there is the influence of mythology, and Tiresias, a mythological character caught between two genders. This detracts from the distinct realism of the passage, and gives it an almost divine quality; a shift from the obvious ramifications of promiscuity towards the spiritual ramifications, something Eliot was supremely concerned by.

The passage is classically full of allusions; we have allusions from Greek mythology, The Tempest, Baudelaire, and the allusion to Tudor England. The allusion to Tudor England is significant in that Queen Elizabeth I was a virgin queen; she allegedly never engaged in any kind of sexual activity, because decisions were entirely political, even the business of love and marriage. Therefore Eliot returns to this period as a kind of juxtaposition; the Elizabethan’s also lacked the spirituality he coveted, but in an entirely different way to the twentieth century. They were simply mercenary, not necessarily corrupt.

The final stanza instigates the beginning of the theme of death, in order to resurrected; the word “burning” is constantly repeated, and the speaker in the poem asks “pluckest me out” of God. This is significant due to the strong theme of realisation; it is as though he has realised the importance of the social change happening around him. The finality of “burning” is also a reference to the Buddhist practice after a death; cremation is said to release the soul, into another life. By destroying this shattered world, there is space for it to be rebuilt. At this point, this part ends, leaving us on something of a cliff hanger, waiting to see what the outcome of this burning really is.

I hope you’re enjoying the series so far; Part IV to follow!

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(1) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/archive/

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